Islamic State: the West must embrace local state ownership of the region’s conflicts

The offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State has damaged thousands of structures in the historic Old City. EPA/Stringer

Has the Middle East – now beset by inter-nation, inter-Muslim and inter-ethnic conflict – been engulfed in a war without end unleashed by the barbarism and terror of Islamic State (ISIL)?

ISIL murders both other fundamentalist Sunni Muslims as well as Shia Muslims; Saudi Arabia is combating Iran; Turkey belatedly fights ISIL while attacking the Kurds. And the US and Russia, their bombs raining down on Syria, have been sucked into this maelstrom, sometimes in uneasy alliance against ISIL, sometimes supporting their own factions in direct opposition to each other.

The Syrian crisis is apocalyptic – a disaster of biblical proportions, with more than five million refugees. The acts of unspeakable brutality carried out by ISIL are quite deliberate. They help create the myth that it’s omnipotent.

But tragically, headline grabbing British, European and American soundbites over Syria have substituted for a proper understanding of the conflict.

Since 9/11, the West has had a pretty poor success rate for its interventions in Muslim countries. Yet indulging in the fictitious luxury of isolationism — doing nothing in the face of genocide as it shamefully did over Rwanda in 1994 – is indefensible.

Instead, countries like Britain should act carefully and not bombastically. They should make common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to confront a common ISIL enemy. They should also seek to dissuade Turkey from its sectarian role, encouraging a realignment of Middle East politics to overcome its violently corrosive fault lines.

That may be the only way to prevent the continuing war and terror.

Western intervention

Tony Blair’s Labour government was right to intervene and save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000 and also to prevent the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo in 1999. But very few, even those supporting it at the time, dispute that Blair’s 2003 support of Bush in Iraq has led to disaster.

Now, Britain is helping defend, with – unusually – Iran on the same side, a fledgling Iraqi government. The current Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider Al-Abadi, has promised inclusive Shia-Sunni rule quite different from the Shia sectarianism of his Western backed predecessor Al-Maliki. But he is weak and Sunni-influenced sectarianism remains rife in Iraq.

Nevertheless there is a real danger that, by stepping in at all, western powers risk freeing Middle East governments – and their militia proxies – to pursue other sectarian agendas to the detriment of the anti-ISIL campaign.

The West must be very determined to ensure that there is regional ownership of – and responsibility for – tackling the ISIL problem. Otherwise the conflict becomes the very one ISIL craves: with the “infidels” of the West.

But what is ISIL?

Although in 2014 ISIL seemed to have sprung out of nowhere, its emergence from Al-Qaeda in Iraq came from Syria in 2011 when President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a campaign of butchery against protesters peacefully demanding the democratic values of the Arab Spring.

ISIL contains many foreign fighters from across the Arab and Islamic world. But its leadership included several senior ex-Saddam Hussein army and intelligence officers of legendary cruelty – a powerful mix of extremist ideology and professional military expertise.

Yet within Iraq, the goals of the ex-Saddam Sunni Baathist leadership and ISIL are very different. It was a marriage of convenience which subsequently deteriorated. ISIL’s objective is an Islamic State stretching from Iraq to Syria. By contrast, its Sunni Iraqi allies either wanted to overthrow what is a Shia dominated government to regain the Sunni supremacy they lost when Saddam was removed, or favoured a semi-autonomous region, like the Kurds.

ISIL is medieval both in its barbarism and in its fanatical religious zeal. But, at the same time, it is a product of a deep seated sense of Sunni disenfranchisement from the autocracies in the region. Unless that political malaise is addressed, ISIL – and groups like it – will continue to feed off popular resentment.

ISIL’s members possess a devout belief that the sole truth is possessed by the conservative Wahhabi sect dating from the 18th century within the Sunni strand of Islam. The rise of a new caliphate has long been the stated aim of global Jihadi terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. But the rigidly extreme Wahhabism specific to ISIL makes them an even more potent threat than Al-Qaeda.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIL have run the necessary trappings of a state in the areas that they have captured – courts, schools and a degree of welfare support. This can bring local people used to an unregulated, chaotic and often violent power vacuum on side.

Aside from being the bloodiest, ISIL was also, allegedly, the world’s richest terrorist organisation. In 2014 it had reserves of over USD$2 billion according to British intelligence.

What makes ISIL so dangerous?

Sunni support for ISIL was encouraged not just by the disastrously anti-Sunni sectarianism of the previous Iraq’s Al-Maliki, a Shia, but by the butchery of Assad, also Shia-aligned.

Because the Al-Maliki regime openly persecuted Sunnis, ISIL’s call to arms resonated with those who normally wouldn’t support its extremism. This is one of the reasons the Iraqi army folded at the sight of the oncoming ISIL hordes in 2014.

Adding to the toxic mix in Iraq has been the presence of up to a million fighters belonging to disparate Shia militias, some directly funded by Iran, of which local Sunnis are deeply suspicious.

There are other groups who would also look favourably on an ISIL-led caliphate spreading their way. These include Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia for example.

What can be done about ISIL?

In proudly publicising its own atrocities ISIL seeks to goad the West into reacting emotionally, not strategically, on the basis of a hypothetical threat when the real threat is in the region.

Yet for all their blood lust, capabilities and wealth, ISIL has been no match for the military, drone, surveillance and intelligence capacities of NATO. Nor Russia’s ferocious air power.

Iran’s de facto, if covert, blessing for Western military strikes against ISIL, especially in Iraq, might have opened an opportunity for future engagement and collaboration. This could be transformative for the whole region, including Israel/Palestine.

But US President Donald Trump’s bitter opposition to the nuclear deal with Tehran, his bellicose rhetoric and his Saudi favouritism, threatens that.

Across the region, Iranians as Shiites sponsor Hezbollah and other militias. Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsor Al Qaeda and other Jihadists – including ISIL – helping unleash a monster.

But, unless the US and Europe are prepared to embrace local state ownership of the region’s conflicts and to put the onus on those states to find a solution, there’s no prospect of peace and stability in the Middle East.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Lord Hain, a former British anti-apartheid leader, MP, and cabinet minister. He is now Visiting Adjunct Professor at Wits Business School.